Thousands gathered Saturday on Crows Landing Road in south Modesto to push for federal immigration reforms and to protest an Arizona law that they fear targets Latinos for racial profiling.
The demonstrations condemned the newly passed law, which requires local and state law enforcement officers to question people on their immigration status if there's reason to suspect they're in the country illegally.
"We think it's an unjust law," said 37-year-old Riverbank resident Jesus Soto in Spanish. "You shouldn't be stopped and questioned just because of the color of your skin."
Soto and several hundred others marched with protest signs, carrying U.S. and Mexican flags along the commercial strip of Crows Landing Road, which is lined with businesses that cater to Latinos.
The demonstrators marched in conjunction with the annual Cinco de Mayo parade on Crows Landing. Thousands of others flanked the street and supported the protest. Dozens of the people who were watching the parade joined the demonstrators and marched alongside them.
"I wanted to unite with them," said 44-year-old Modesto resident Alberto Ramirez in Spanish. "The Arizona law is just wrong."
On Friday, Arizona legislators modified the law, which makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally.
The changes include banning police from using race or ethnicity as the sole basis for questioning, and mandating that police can scrutinize only people they stop, detain or arrest on suspicion of violating another law.
Emotion and urgency
Nevertheless, dozens of marches were held Saturday in cities across the country from Los Angeles to Dallas to New York.
The anti-illegal immigration law has added a lot of emotion and urgency to the demonstrators' cause, said Maggie Mejia, a spokeswoman for the Latino Community Roundtable of Stanislaus County.
"It's racial profiling; that's the bottom line," said Mejia, one of the organizers of the march in Modesto. "I do not support it."
She said the Arizona law mirrors segregation laws that discriminated against Southern blacks. The demonstrators demand that Congress and President Barack Obama enact a comprehensive reform law.
Homero Mejia of Congregations Building Community was encouraging residents to register to vote and strengthen their political power.
"If we just march, and we don't vote, they're always going to treat us the same," Mejia told the demonstrators in Spanish. "We all need to participate."
Maria Cardoza, 18, of Ceres said she believes the Arizona law is unconstitutional and goes against one of the country's core ideals of welcoming immigrants seeking jobs.
"Everyone deserves a second chance to make a better life for themselves," said Cardoza, a Modesto Junior College student. "That is what America is for."
Before the Arizona law was passed, organizers already had planned the Modesto march as part of the nationwide campaign calling for reforms that would create a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
Alberto Gonzalez, one of the Modesto demonstration organizers, said they hope the uproar over the Arizona law will fuel the campaign for immigration reform.
"They've awakened a sleeping giant," said Gonzalez said in Spanish. "What's happening in Arizona is a cancer that can spread everywhere."
On the same day four years ago, thousands of demonstrators walked across Modesto and Ceres to support amnesty for millions of immigrants who entered the country illegally.
The 2006 march was also part of a nationwide effort that had more than a million people protesting against federal legislation, which would have made it a felony to enter the country illegally. Though the bill was unsuccessful, it still triggered massive marches.
"I think the biggest difference this time around is that there's been a change in the administration in Washington, and now people are more hopeful that something can actually be done," said Solange Altman, a Modesto-based immigration attorney. "People have been wanting change for a really long time."
'It's a broken system'
Altman said she marched alongside the demonstrators Saturday to show her support for the Latino community. She said the passing of the Arizona law is a reflection that nothing has been done on the federal level to reform immigration laws.
"It's a broken system that needs to be fixed," Altman said.
Nora Ramos, 33, of Modesto said the issue is much more personal for her. She is a U.S. citizen, while her husband is undocumented. She said she fears the Arizona law is the beginning of a wave of anti-immigration legislation that discriminates against Latinos.
"When I first heard about the law, I started to cry," Ramos said while marching with the demonstrators. "I can't believe all these families will be torn apart. We need some type of reform that will end all this racism."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.